I have never felt so small as I did when I first visited hurricane-ravaged New Orleans two months after Katrina. There were signs everywhere of the horror that played out when 80 percent of the city became submerged in water. Cars swept up in the floodwaters now rested upside down on building tops. Downed power lines crisscrossed mud-caked streets, and marooned boats and homes that had floated right off their foundations blocked intersections. Ripped-open roofs and spray-painted messages of desperation for help told stories of people fighting for survival.
After spending several months reporting in New Orleans, I adapted to this eerie landscape. It wasn’t until I later returned to my home in San Francisco that I realized how deep the impact was on me personally. The crowded downtown streets and intact buildings of my city’s skyline gave me a comfort I hadn’t noticed before. I was struck by the features of a functioning American city that most of us take for granted, from operating stoplights to trash pick-up and mail delivery, from phone service to cable TV. In my home, I surveyed family photos, treasures I’d collected through travels, the smallest personal belongings I’d never before stopped to think might define me, until I saw the faces of Katrina survivors whose every possession had been washed away.
There were many stages of grief and loss that I witnessed in the lives of three New Orleans families who agreed to give me a personal look at rebuilding from the worst natural disaster in American history. Their journeys reconciling lost homes, entire neighborhoods, jobs, schools and churches have been monumental. But as each family overcame the shock and anger of what happened to them, they did the only thing they could — begin again.
It wasn’t always easy for them to invite cameras into their most trying moments, but each expressed a duty to inform other Americans about what it was like to be at the center of this tragedy.
Searing experience shapes lives
“Let the people know that New Orleans is still crying,” firefighter Haden Brown told our crew. Brown, whose family lived in the hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward, volunteered with the city’s search and recovery team responsible for finding victims’ remains. That mission, which is documented in “Rising From Ruin,” lasted nearly 10 months after the storm, bringing New Orleans’ death toll to 904 people.
“The Lord has allowed me to live through this,” says Brown, whose displaced family ended up on a cruise ship along with those of hundreds of other homeless emergency workers. “I will keep this experience with me through my whole life.”
Social worker Carol Emery said she hoped the story of her city would serve as a wake-up call to the nation. After her home flooded, she moved to Baton Rouge, where many of her other flooded-out family members also took shelter. After months of unsuccessfully navigating FEMA’s bureaucracy for a trailer, she and her husband, Thomas, decided to move back into the second floor of their flooded home. While they rebuild downstairs, they use their former office to cook meals in and their spare bathroom as the kitchen sink.
“If this happened again, would the same thing happen or would they be better organized? I hope the next group of people that have to deal with a hurricane, earthquake, whatever it is, that our government is better prepared to assist them, because it didn’t happen for us,” Emery says. “What have I learned? You’ve got to have your own plan.”
Figuring out the future
Chris Hankel, a manager of a family-owned clothing business, and his wife, Marilyn, a university librarian, fear that the city they love so dearly will be forgotten. “The music, so many different cultures and our history — New Orleans just gets in your blood,” Chris Hankel says. “It’s a special place. To see a lot of that go, it’s a sad time in the history of New Orleans.”
After losing their home, the Hankels moved in with relatives in a suburb of New Orleans. Months of sleeping on air mattresses in a spare bedroom only added more stress to their conflict over what to do next. “Chris and I been disagreeing over whether to stay or go,” Marilyn Hankel says. “And his response is, ‘Well, I just want to leave.’ And my response is, ‘Well, I don’t want to leave.’ And we kind of come to an impasse.”
Countless families’ lives were turned upside down by Katrina, and for many, the turmoil is as raw and real today as it was a year ago. As for the three clans featured in “Rising From Ruin,” each is a little more settled today: Carol Emery and her husband are getting ready to move back into the first floor of their home; Haden Brown and his family are off the cruise ship living in a new home on the West Bank; and Chris and Marilyn have decided to stay, at least for a while, after moving into the neighborhood where they lived as newlyweds. But as they’ve all discovered, every day living in the Crescent City post-Katrina presents a new challenge.
An incomplete recovery
Some of the features of an American city have come back to New Orleans. Most levee repairs have been completed, and basic utilities have been restored to almost every part of the city. In the city center, streetcars and buses are running on schedule again. Much of the debris that once littered the streets has been hauled away, and “Men at Work” signs checker the city as demolition crews keep busy clearing away 30,000-plus uninhabitable homes.
But while the empty lots and exposed slabs make it a little easier to imagine new beginnings there, they are also stark reminders of what has been lost. The progress is overshadowed by the vast stretches of the flooded region that still look and feel as they did during the first days after the water was pumped from the city.
“It’s still an emotional roller coaster for New Orleanians,” says Jim Amoss, editor of New Orleans’ daily newspaper, The Times-Picayune. “You wake up one morning and you see that the huge pile of debris is finally being carted away, and it gives you a wonderful lift. Then you wake up the next day and you read an article in the paper about global warming and hurricanes being more intense than ever. Hopeful one day; dismayed and disparaged the next. That is the way that we are living.”
Kelly Whalen produced and photographed “Rising From Ruin,” airing Aug. 29 on MSNBC at 10 p.m. ET. Abigail Spindel, co-producer of “Rising From Ruin,” contributed to this report.